Exploring school leaders' experiences of fear: a literature review

Year: 2021

Author: Thambi, Melinda

Type of paper: Individual Paper

Fear is an influential but understudied aspect of workplace life (Kish-Gephart, Detert, Treviño & Edmonson, 2009), and the education sector is no exception. Michele Schmidt, when discussing accountability, claims that school leaders experience “... a range of emotions – often delimited or defined by fear” (Schmidt, 2009, p. 147). The experience of fear for school leaders is a significant issue for study because of the potential impacts of fear upon the psychological wellbeing of the school leaders, and, by implication, on the schools and systems in which they work.   The purpose of this paper is to review the literature on the connection between fear and school leadership, including an examination of both what school leaders fear, and of how they might manage or mitigate these fears. The paper draws on findings from educational leadership and organizational literature. My reading shows that fear has been overlooked in the organizational literature, perhaps because of the preferred focus on positive emotions in workplaces (Fineman, 1993). A recent increase in the literature on emotion and educational leadership has seen more written about fear: for example, Ackerman and Maslin-Ostrowski's (2002) work identified fear as a theme in their research on the wounding of leaders. A preliminary overview of the literature identifies some areas in which educational leaders may experience fear: accountability (Schmidt, 2009), threats to physical safety (Riley, 2016), powerlessness (Maslin-Ostrowski & Ackerman, 2000), competing demands from opposing forces (Bottery, 2006; Starratt & Leeman, 2009), failure (Blackmore, 2010), personal vulnerabilities (Nir, 2009) and risk (Starr, 2012). A range of responses to feelings of fear are also identified, such as: emotional numbing (Gallant & Riley, 2013), knowledge (Schmidt, 2009), acknowledgement of complexity (Bottery, 2012), support (Beatty, 2000; Woods, 2010) and authentic leadership (Yagil & Medler-Liraz, 2014). I argue that greater understanding of the experience of fear for educational leaders will add to the growing knowledge base of the emotional dimension of work in schools, potentially increasing the resilience and capacity of those in educational leadership roles.